Language Learning

Learning a new language as an adult

Many adults think that learning a new language in adulthood is impossible. A new foreign language can be difficult to learn, and linguists agree. Here are some ways to stay motivated.

Learning a new language

By Expatica

Updated 28-2-2024

Steven Pinker, for one, thinks the language instinct is lost somewhere around puberty. Children are linguistic geniuses, adults linguistic dolts. For children, learning a new language and the accent that comes with it is generally a simple journey, but the time at which that learning starts can be crucial. Pinker points out that Walter Kissinger (Henry’s younger brother) has no German accent, though over eighty years after his emigration, Henry famously does. They moved to the United States at the same time in the crucial years around puberty. Walter’s advantage, Pinker surmises, was being a few years younger than his brother when they moved. This made learning a new language easier for him, so he could kick his accent. According to Pinker, the accent is as much a part of the language instinct as is grammar.

Learning a new language in adulthood is difficult; nothing can replace the childhood environment, much less the childhood brain. But with patience and persistence, it can be done. Speaking a new language requires more than lips, teeth, and tongue; it requires ears, eyes, and mental agility. You must listen carefully and then imitate.

Language is like jazz: both are spontaneous compositions derived from a finite set of elements. But the jazz analogy may compel people to think that they simply don’t have the talent. What they don’t realize is how obsessively John Coltrane practiced, repeating scales and arpeggios over and over again to build up the skills he would need to make that freeform composition on the stage seem so effortless.


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Learning is a gradual process

Regular practice is by far the most important element of learning a new language. Students often try to cram as much into their heads as fast as they possibly can. While an admirable approach in terms of effort, it often only leads to frustration and fatigue. If you’re taking a class, students are exposed to the language only one to three times a week, plus the time they spend on homework.

Japanese signs
Learning a new language takes everyday practice, even if it’s as simple as ordering food (Photo: Jelleke Vanooteghem / Unsplash)

It’s far more helpful to spend five minutes twice a day, every day, thinking, reading, and speaking in the language. Where and when, though? As you learn, practice out loud whenever you are alone. While you walk to the train station, review your vocabulary with yourself. Start simple: “I go to work. I am in the car. I live in Vilnius.” Repeat these basics over and over, and then vary the subject. “Steve goes to work. He is in his car. Steve lives in Bangkok.”

Repeat, repeat, repeat. You’ll eventually feel the thrill as you graduate to compound sentences, tenses, and modal verbs (should, would, must, may). “I am going to work, because I have to. I live in Montevideo, and I love it here.” Those steps beyond baby talk are exciting.

Enroll in a class

If you live in any medium-sized city, language classes shouldn’t be too hard to find. If you’re in a big city, you’ll be spoiled for choice. Plenty of universities offer language classes, even for those who aren’t actually attending the school. Look into resources provided by your local or national government; they often have language classes or broadcast television or radio programs with simple, clearly-spoken dialogue intended for children or language learners. Cultural promotion organizations also offer classes to anyone wanting to learn more about their country.

Attending a class is the single best way to motivate yourself. The desire to impress a teacher and classmates will help keep you on task. If you have the means to get a private tutor, even better. But be sure to get a recommendation from a knowledgeable friend; not every native speaker is a good teacher.

Kickstart your self-study

Learning a new language all by yourself is extremely difficult, and probably not a good idea if it’s your first one. However, if you decide to go the autodidact route, make sure to use top-notch resources.

A good book can get you far in a language with straightforward rules for spelling or sentence composition. Consider Routledge’s Colloquial Series as a book series to start. But for languages with irregular spelling (French or Danish, say) or unfamiliar sounds (e.g., Chinese or Hindi), it’s better to invest in a book that comes with audio examples. Random House’s Ultimate Series has a straightforward, building-block structure, with practical vocabulary and lucid explanations.

Mobile apps
There are plenty of apps available to help when it comes to learning a new language (Photo: Nordwood Themes / Unsplash)

There are plenty of language-learning apps that have something to offer, as well, but don’t expect miraculous results. Rosetta Stone, for instance, teaches grammar and vocabulary quite well, but it seriously lacks when it comes to practical speech; that can be disappointing considering the enormous price tag. On the other hand, apps such as Duolingo or Clozemaster are great at instilling new vocabulary to learners. Meanwhile, apps like Preply provide live, online lessons so you can learn in an interactive way. Languages have unique, difficult parts to them; as a result, not every app will teach the Arabic dual number or the Russian verbal aspect system in the same way, so it’s best to diversify your sources of learning.

Immerse yourself

Whenever possible, bring the language into your immediate world. Use small stickers to attach to items all around your home with their name in the language you’re learning. This is an excellent vocabulary-building technique. If every time you reach for your coffee mug you see чашка and you say the word to yourself, it will stick in your head.

Make sure you can also hear the language everywhere. Try learning a language through music by listening to radio stations or popular artists in that language. If you’re using a streaming service like Netflix, enable subtitles in your target language if they’re available. You don’t need to understand absolutely everything, but this helps acclimatize you to the way native speakers use the language in everyday use. You’ll get a crucial psychological boost when you can make out a few words. Do this every few days and you’ll be surprised by your progress.

Reading also helps. Tucking into an article about unfamiliar material can be a struggle, but it’s also one of the more rewarding methods. If you’re familiar with the topic, you’re more likely to pick up vocabulary. You’ll start out with a dictionary, but once you learn frequently-used words, you can go without it and guess the things you don’t know. After you feel comfortable tackling reading a newspaper article on your own, try a short novel.

Last, befriend a native speaker. Practicing the basics at the grocery store is fine, but mastery of a language depends on the amount of conversations that you have. If you’re lucky enough to have a friend, housemate, or partner who is a native speaker, take advantage of them. Don’t wait until you feel totally comfortable, or you’ll never start. Make it fun, make it a routine, and do so early.

Just relax

The biggest hurdle to learning a new language is psychological. If you’re nervous about blundering through a new language in front of strangers, the best way to relax is to start slowly. At your local coffee shop in Łódź, taking your coffee away while saying dziękuję instead of thank you is a baby step that shows you’re trying. Your pronunciation won’t be perfect; it might never be and that’s perfectly okay. Eventually, you’ll feel confident enough in speaking Polish that you greet the staff, ask them how their weekend was, or talk about the weather.

When you’re ready and have the chance, smile and try speaking with your teacher in the corridor, your co-worker, the man who sells you cigarettes, or the waiter at your favorite restaurant. See that grin? Most people love to see you make the effort, and they’ll be delighted to see you break out new vocabulary and longer sentences.

If you kick yourself for every little slip-up (and you will make plenty), you’ll never progress. If you relax, simply communicate, and most of all enjoy, you can, with patience and effort, learn any language you want.